The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Doobie Brothers – “What A Fool Believes”

HIT #1: April 14, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

There weren’t a whole lot of #1 singles in 1979 that didn’t at least nod toward disco. The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” stood out. It wasn’t disco. It wasn’t funky dixieland, either. Today, the song is considered a foundational yacht rock classic. But yacht rock wasn’t an actual genre; it was a retrospective category. Instead, “What A Fool Believes” was vaguely soulful soft rock, written by two of the key figures in the coming smoothed-out moment and recorded by a band in transition.

In the four years after they first hit #1 with “Black Water,” the Doobie Brothers didn’t land so much as a top-10 single. The band still sold albums, and they were still a live draw. They made their now-iconic guest appearance on a two-episode arc of What’s Happening!!, teaching Roger and Rerun about the evils of bootlegging, in 1978. But the Doobies had nothing to do with the disco wave that had taken over pop music, and they probably seemed like a relic of a distant post-’60s past.

And yet the Doobie Brothers were changing. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a former Steely Dan sideman, had played on “Black Water,” and he became a full-time Doobie soon after. Meanwhile, frontman Tom Johnston was suffering from bad health, including a bleeding ulcer that kept him off the road for long stretches. Since the Doobies needed a new lead singer to tour, Baxter suggested another Steely Dan contributor: Michael McDonald, a native of the St. Louis suburbs who had serious piano chops and a big, burly voice.

Starting with the 1976 album Takin’ It To The Streets, McDonald essentially took over as the Doobie Brothers’ frontman. (Johnston finally left in 1977.) With McDonald at the helm, the band changed direction. They moved toward some fusion of pillowy LA soft-rock and studio-slick blue-eyed soul, with Baxter doing more jazz-inspired runs. They became, in short, a whole lot more like Steely Dan. (Steely Dan’s highest-charting single, 1974’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

Before we continue with this, I should disclose something: I don’t fucking get Steely Dan. Never have. I’ve tried. I’ve read all the articles about how they were studio wizards and subversive scribes of Californian ickiness. I’ve seen them live, that one time they played Coachella, where I liked Donald Fagen’s between-song patter a lot better than the actual songs. I’ve heard rap producers make songs that I like out of Steely Dan samples. None of it works on me.

Steely Dan’s sound just drifts right over me — this indolent rhythmless ultra-produced gloop that asks me to give a fuck about the quiet internal longings of assholes. It misses me. Everytime I have a friend who suddenly gets really into Steely Dan — and it happens all the time — it reminds me of whenever one of my friends in high school got really into Dungeons & Dragons or anime. It’s just like: Ah, shit. There goes another one. I can never have a conversation with this person again. (Please don’t try to convert me to Steely Dan. It won’t work.)

Most of the stuff that Steely Dan inspired misses me, too. This means that the early ’80s columns that we’re about to get into might be a bit bumpy. In any case: The Doobie Brothers were now, more or less, a different band. They were the kind of band who makes lush and glossy gargle-soul. They were no longer interested in funky dixieland. They were the kind of band who comes up with “What A Fool Believes.”

Michael McDonald started writing “What A Fool Believes” on his own. He had the first verse, and he had the general storyline. He knew that this was a song about an old ex-couple, their breakup distant in the rearview mirror, meeting again to catch up. The man thinks they’re about to rekindle things. The woman is just being polite. The man has a hell of a time letting it go. McDonald couldn’t finish the song. Ted Templeman, the Doobies’ producer, heard McDonald’s fragment and told him that it was a hit, that he needed to finish it. Eventually, Doobies bassist Tiran Porter told McDonald that Kenny Loggins was hoping to write some songs with him.

Kenny Loggins came from the Seattle suburbs to Los Angeles in high school. As a young musician, he had stints playing guitar in a later Electric Prunes lineup and writing songs for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1970, he met the former Buffalo Springfield and Poco member Jim Messina, and they formed Loggins And Messina, a smooth-rock duo who went on to sell a whole lot of records in the ’70s. (Loggins And Messina’s highest-charting song, 1972’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Loggins And Messina split up in 1976, and Loggins kicked off his solo career nicely, getting to #5 with the 1978 Stevie Nicks duet “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’.” (It’s a 6.)

Loggins hadn’t actually met Michael McDonald before they got together to write. As he was walking up to McDonald’s house, Loggins heard McDonald playing his unfinished piece of “What A Fool Believes,” and he immediately knew where it should go. The two bonded while writing the song, finishing up the lyrics over the phone later that night. Loggins was actually the first to release the song; he put a version of it on his 1978 solo album Nightwatch. (On Loggins’ take, he sings from the perspective of the woman, not the man.) But Loggins never released his version as a single. Five months later, McDonald and the Doobies released their take on it.

The story of those “What A Fool Believes” lyrics is a classic grown-up pop music tale. A man thinks he’s in love. A woman isn’t into it at all. And so it turns into a reverie for the man, who can’t let go of this bygone era or of the idea that the era is destined to start again: “The sentimental fool don’t see/ Trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created once in her life.” McDonald and Loggins know that the guy is deluded and that the couple won’t get back together, but they sympathize. Those lyrics, unfortunately, are a weird syntactic jumble that, at least for me, don’t really evoke the ache or the awkwardness of that situation: “As he rises to her apology/ Anybody else would surely know/ He’s watching her go.”

“What A Fool Believes” is clearly a well-made song. McDonald delivers it with verve and passion and personality. His big, heavy voice has enough versatility to hit upper-register notes — a natural baritone willing itself toward falsetto. The recording is thick and lush, with a whole lot going on. There’s a vaguely samba-ish rhythm and a sea of analog synths. The people who made the song knew what they were doing.

I am immune to all of it. “What A Fool Believes” misses me. I don’t get any of it. I don’t get McDonald’s show-offy chesty yarl. I don’t get the way those keyboards bleep lazily at each other. I don’t get the absolute lack of urgency. It just sounds like canned nothingness to me. Over the course of writing this column, I’ve gotten deep into songs that I’d taken for granted for my entire life. I’ve thought about how they work, and I’ve found things that I love that I’d never previously considered. But that’s not happening here. I still don’t get “What A Fool Believes.”

Whatever my feelings might be, “What A Fool Believes” was a big prestige record, winning Grammys for both Song and Record Of The Year. Over the next few years, the Doobie Brothers would go through more changes. The band made the top 10 one more time, with the 1980 single “Real Love” (peaked at #5, a 5). But people kept quitting the band, and when final original member Patrick Simmons left in 1981, McDonald decided to finally break up the Doobies. McDonald went solo, and he’ll appear in this column again. Kenny Loggins will be in here, too.

As for the rest of the Doobies, they reunited without McDonald, with Tom Johnston at the front again, to play a sold-out Hollywood Bowl benefit in 1987. That reinvigorated version of the band managed one more top-10 single in 1989’s “The Doctor” (peaked at #9, a 7). They’ve been playing together ever since. Michael McDonald rejoins them for surprise appearances every so often. And later this year, with McDonald, they’re being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “What A Fool Believes” soundtracking a museum display about creationism on a 2006 episode of The Simpsons: